Retrospective: Risk Legacy

pizza-slick ammo shortages, grease-stained continents, secret missile compartments, joy
[This is the story of Earth #00001941. It comes to us from American journalist and fan of SU&SD Jacob Tierney, and holds the honour of being the first retrospective to almost make Quinns cry.

The following is spoiler-free. Images courtesy of BoardGameGeek.]

“NOTE: What’s done can never be undone.”

The statement is emblazoned on the sticker that seals every copy of Risk Legacy, forcing you to acknowledge it before you even open the box. It’s a warning, but also a promise. This game will be something completely different.

It was the last week of 2011. My friends and I had chipped in for one of the most-discussed games of recent memory, and we planned to complete it before I returned to college for my final semester the following month.

Completion is a weird concept in board games, which are usually meant to be infinitely replayable. But then, Risk Legacy is all about weird concepts.

For the unfamiliar, Risk Legacy imbues the classic wargame with an element of permanence. Victories and defeats affect not only the current session, but every future game as well. Players place stickers representing cities or hazards on the board; they name continents in permanent ink. Territories become more or less valuable based on the strategies and whims of their holders.

Retrospective: Risk Legacy

Further game-altering goodies are hidden inside sealed packs, not to be revealed until certain conditions are met. The construction of the last minor city, or the first battle in which three or more missiles are fired, will trigger events that drastically change the way all future sessions are played.

After 15 games the changes stop. The game is complete, although still perfectly playable, a one-of-a-kind world shaped by its inhabitants.

It’s a game with a flair for presentation, perhaps more than any other in my collection. It’s not that the components are especially lavish. Rather, the game goes out of its way to fill every moment with the greatest possible portent. Simply opening the box has a ritualistic feel thanks to the aforementioned sticker, and before the first game begins players are encouraged to sign a contract taking responsibility for the wars about to take place.

Our board was stamped with a serial number. We would be battling over Earth #00001941.

Risk takes a lot of flack among gamers. It is too dependent on luck, they complain, and the way armies are recruited makes it overly prone to swings of fortune. Hours of play can be negated in one single, devastating assault. It was designed in 1957, and it’s showing its age.

I agree with these criticisms, and there are many games I would rather play instead of classic, vanilla Risk. Yet its flaws conspire to make a game filled with thrilling moments.

Retrospective: Risk Legacy

Everyone has their tales of the single soldier who stemmed the tide of a massive conquering force with a string of incredible dice rolls, or the perfectly-timed resource cards that gave them the troops needed to turn a defeat into a triumph.

Risk is a game that generates stories, and Legacy elevates this. It retains and amplifies the excitement of its predecessor while shortening the playtime and polishing the most offensive mechanics. Our sessions over the coming days would create countless narratives.

An ammo shortage in North Africa renders the entire continent nearly indefensible. An army of half-naked, bear-riding warriors overwhelms a troop of giant mechs. Two major powers battle over a meaningless scrap of land in central Asia, using all their valuable missiles just to see what waits inside a sealed pack. My friend Aaron, for no discernable reason, lifts the plastic insert out of the box and discovers the ominous secret the game has hidden away from prying eyes.

Most importantly, the game remembers these stories. Board gaming creates shared experiences that usually persist only in the minds of the players, but Risk Legacy is different. Victories and defeats, tiny little moments of glory and shame, are recorded on the board, a physical testament to good times spent with friends.

Retrospective: Risk Legacy

We were hooked. We gathered every free night, playing game after game, finishing the 15-round campaign in under two weeks. As the dust settled, my friend Kyle took his place as triumphant ruler of our world.

In retrospect, I now realize Risk Legacy was the perfect game at the perfect time for my friends and me. Soon I would return to college, graduate, and move to a small town far away to begin my career. Most of my friends have similar stories, and as our lives propelled forward we soon would have frustratingly little time for the game nights that were once the highlight of our (mostly sparse) social calendars.

Yet as 2011 gave way to 2012 we had all the time in the world. We spent it playing Risk Legacy, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The game provided something of a swan song to our lives as teenagers. To me, it encapsulates the countless game nights we enjoyed over the years. Sitting around until the small hours of the morning, delving into our rapidly-dwindling stockpiles of junk food and talking trash about the latest round of Cosmic Encounter or Settlers of Catan.

I still see my old friends every few months. We get together to play games whenever we have a couple free days, and of course the internet makes it easy to stay in touch.

But it’s not like it was.

We have careers, college classes, long-term relationships, the opportunities and responsibilities that inevitably accumulate as we slowly slide into adulthood.

Retrospective: Risk Legacy

Later this year Seafall will be released, the spiritual sequel to Risk Legacy. The scraps of information unveiled so far suggest it could be an even grander game, the full potential of an ever-evolving experience unbound from Risk’s aging, often creaky, mechanics.

I’m excited. I will buy it as soon as it’s released, and move heaven and earth to get the same group of friends together over as many weekends as it takes to play it to completion. It won’t be the same. It can’t be. Our lives have changed, and us along with them.

“NOTE: What’s done can never be undone.”

I wouldn’t want to undo the last few years. I like who I am now, and I like where my life is headed. I’m not asking to turn back the clock. It’s just sometimes I wish I could preserve those carefree nights around a kitchen table in some kind of pocket universe, slip comfortably out of my “adult” life for a few hours and return to a time when all that mattered was my friends and I and the next roll of the die.

If this is impossible, then our copy of Risk Legacy may be the next best thing. It’s a customized milestone, a memorial, a relic of who we were back then.

Each handwritten note, every sticker, every grease stain from careless pizza-slick fingers can take me back to those nights before everything changed.

Designer Rob Daviau has created more than just an innovative board game. He’s created a time capsule.

I thank him for it.

[Jacob Tierney is a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times, a newspaper in northern New York state. He spends an unconscionable amount of time planning his next game night. You can reach him via Twitter, @Soolseem.]